Artists Changed Britain’s Perception of the Great Hunger
The Great Famine coincided with the founding in 1842 of the world’s first illustrated newspaper, The Illustrated London News (ILN). The suffering in Ireland was heightened by systematic neglect by government, the total absence of a comprehensive humanitarian plan of relief, and the law of the land which only supported the rights of landlords.
The British public learned about the terrible events in Ireland through these newspapers. The artist working in the field, drew the picture which was sent to London where a draftsman transferred the image onto blocks of wood, which the engraver, using lines with white and dark spaces composited the image alongside movable type in the final page layouts. The resulting engraved pictures had a dramatic quality never seen before. These images from around the British Empire were not always glorious.
This was the golden age of illustration. Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll saw how they could enhance their stories with an appropriate picture. British newspapers initially avoided reports critical of the British government’s handling of the unfolding catastrophe. These stark illustrations convinced the British reading public that a major tragedy was unfolding in Ireland. The reaction of the British public had a direct bearing on British policies in Ireland eventually leading to the complete and thorough change of land ownership in Ireland.
The Great Famine gripped Ireland during the late 1840s and early 1850s. Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary, to the British Treasury was responsible for Irish famine relief. This man decided the rebellious Irish deserved their fate and described the famine as a mechanism for reducing surplus population. Political journalist, John Mitchel described Ireland as capable of feeding eighteen millions of people. Large quantities of butter, corn, peas, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, honey and seed were exported from Ireland during this time.
Trevelyan was satirised in Anthony Trollopes novel The Three Clerks (1858) and in the ballad The Fields of Athenry: ‘By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling/ Michael, they are taking you away, For you stole Trevelyan’s corn, So the young might see the morn/Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay’
James Mahony’s illustration above, shows the vicar sharing the last moments of a dying man in a hovel in Schull, Co Cork, Ireland. Mahony had to stand on a filthy floor to draw this haunting image, the hut was less than 10 feet square, there were three children, the man buried his wife 5 days earlier. The caption: ‘Mullins died and three days later so did the vicar’ Illustrated London News February 20, 1847.
Illustrated London News Archives, London 2015
The Three Clerks, Anthony Trollope, Penguin, 2000
The Fields of Athenry, Ballad, Irish Music Collections